Photo Credit: Eric Francis

What the Odds Are Telling Us About Nebraska-Illinois

August 22, 2021

Back in July, Nebraska opened as a 9.5-point favorite over Illinois for the Aug. 28 season opener, but the number was closer to a touchdown before the month was out.

Six days out from the first college football game of the season, that’s where the number was holding. According to the line histories at VegasInsider.com, most of the Las Vegas sportsbooks had Nebraska -6.5 or -7 at the end of last week. DraftKings listed the Huskers at -7 (-105) and -255 on the moneyline on the morning of Aug. 22.

It was -115 to take the Illini at +7 and +205 on the moneyline. The over/under was 55, -115 on the over and -105 on the under.

What’s that tell us about the game?

The DraftKings moneyline odds imply a 72% straight-up win probability for Nebraska, 33% for Illinois.

But wait, that doesn’t add up to 100. It never will because this is how sportsbooks eliminate their risk. Say a book took only two bets on this game. You bet $255 on Nebraska to win $100 if the Huskers win the game. Noted Illini fan, Will Leitch, bets $100 on his team and wins $205 if Illinois comes through. In this hypothetical scenario, the sportsbook pays you $100 if the Huskers win but takes Leitch’s $100 bet for a net of $0. If the Illini win, the book pays Leitch $205 but keeps your $255 for a net profit of $50. In this hypothetical scenario with an even number of bets on each side, it’s a risk-free position for the sportsbook (though an Illinois win would be better for the bottom line). If the odds corresponded with, say, an implied 70/30 win probability split––about -233 and +233––with even bets on each side, the sportsbook still wouldn’t lose anything but it wouldn’t be able to make any money either. That’s super simplified, but it’s why implied win probabilities won’t add up to 100%.

Knowing that, if you’re only interested in how people whose job it is to project team strength are projecting this game, odds can still be a useful, if imperfect, guide. The moneyline odds are asking you to pay for a 72% win probability for the Huskers. The Football Power Index, one of ESPN’s two power ratings for college football, currently gives Nebraska a 65% win probability. FPI, based on its team ratings, would make the line for this game Nebraska -5.5, factoring in a 2.5-point home-field advantage for Illinois. That 2.5 points for home field is my call––I don’t know what FPI actually uses––but it should be pretty close as that estimated spread turns out to be how often actual 5.5-point favorites have won in college football over a large sample size––65%.

SP+ is ESPN’s other college football power rating and the one I prefer simply because I know more about what makes up the ratings. It was more bullish on Nebraska in its most recent offseason update. The Huskers would be a -10 road favorite by the SP+ ratings, using the same 2.5-point home field advantage. Ten-point favorites have won outright about 77% of the time.

That’s closer to the Vegas opening line from the summer, -9. It came down quickly and, given that all happened in July, was probably just a sign bettors weren’t valuing Nebraska quite as much as the bookmakers were. Seven is where it settled for the past few weeks, but this will be worth watching as we draw closer to kickoff.

On the injury front, there may be some questions for the Huskers at tight end and the presumed starter at left tackle, Turner Corcoran, was out for some practices recently. Expect Scott Frost to be pretty opaque this week on the injury front, given that Illinois already has the perceived advantage of mystery owing to its new coaching staff.

As of last week, Illini head coach Bret Bielema said only two players were likely to miss the opener. Jordyn Slaughter, a redshirt sophomore competing to start at right guard, was likely lost for the season with an ankle injury. Marquez Beason, a defensive back who moved to wide receiver this offseason, also could be out.

Since we’re talking about Week 0, the opening lines, line moves since then and preseason power ratings, even if they’re predictive, are all based on what these two teams have been recently. We’ll see how they actually look on Saturday.

Illinois, as a two-touchdown underdog, beat Nebraska 41-23 in Lincoln last season. The Huskers committed five turnovers in the game and have turned the ball over 11 times in three games against the Illini under Frost.

A few other odds-related notes:

–Beyond Illinois, DraftKings had six lines open on Nebraska as of Aug. 28. The Huskers are +19.5 at Oklahoma on Sept. 18, -4 at Michigan State on Sept. 25, -6.5 against Northwestern on Oct. 2, +2.5 at home against Michigan on Oct. 9, -6.5 against Purdue on Oct. 30 and +4.5 against Iowa on Black Friday.

–Nebraska-Illinois isn’t just the first college football game this Saturday, kicking off at 12 p.m. Central, it’s also projected to be the closest. Fresno State hosts Connecticut at 1 p.m. and is currently 27.5-point favorite. Hawaii visits UCLA for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff with the Bruins favored by 17. The nightcap (8:30 p.m. kickoff) features UTEP as a 9-point favorite at New Mexico State.

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